Pumas offer glimpse of even brighter future
Graham Jenkins at the Millennium Stadium
November 10, 2012
Argentina's Juan Imhoff is engulfed after scoring a try at the Millennium Stadium © PA Photos
A woeful Wales were treated to a glimpse of the rugby's future at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday by an Argentina side seemingly destined for the pinnacle of the international game.
Fresh from bloodying the noses of the giants of New Zealand, Australia and South Africa in their debut in an annual Tier 1 competition - The Rugby Championship, the Pumas offered yet more evidence that they are a growing force in world rugby.
Only the best sides are supposed to dominate you on your own patch and while that exclusive club does not yet include Argentina, a few more performances like this will see a revision of the world order. All this when their squad is scattered around the globe, with the global calendar against them and without the resources of their major rivals. Just imagine what they could do.
You would have thought that this year was all about consolidation for Santiago Phelan's side having finally been granted a long-overdue place seat at rugby's top table but no. They went toe-to-toe with their southern hemisphere rivals and earned widespread praise but far from resting on their laurels, they are seemingly intent on using them as a springboard to the next stage of their development. Not content with playing against the best in the world, they want to ranked alongside them.
The Pumas' Rugby Championship campaign was largely-fruitless in terms of results - with a draw against the Springboks the highlight - but it offered a priceless amount of experience that looks set to serve them well in the future and perhaps most importantly in the next few weeks.
Argentina have never been short of passion and commitment but having held their own against the world's best time and time again in the last few months they now are now brimming with confidence, without fear and with no reason to dread facing any side in the world.
One of Wales coach Warren Gatland's favourite mantras is that you need to play against the best regularly if you are to ascend to those same heights and Argentina are the perfect example of what such a policy can produce.
They have learnt a great deal as individuals with the likes of Gonzalo Camacho, Juan Imhoff and Nicolas Sanchez on a steep upward curve in terms of performance and profile. They may not yet rank as world class like their talismanic and ever-industrious skipper Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe but you sense they are not far off. But they have perhaps grown even more as a side, expressing a desire and work-rate that can only be forged when a squad is united towards one cause and for that Phelan and his cohorts deserve much praise.
The loss of veteran centre and key playmaker Felipe Contepomi would have served as a near-fatal blow to the Argentina's hopes a short time ago but not now. The new and improved Pumas are battle-hardened and having shown they could survive and even thrive without Contepomi throughout the Rugby Championship, they swiftly re-grouped before reasserting themselves. The mark of real champions and something that you cannot necessarily coach.
They may still lack the clinical edge of their Rugby Championship rivals and occasionally lose their way with the ball in hand but they have an invaluable ability to think on their feet. And when they do click the result can be sublime. Imhoff's try was the result of some exquisite off-loading skills from Lobbe and fellow back-row Juan Manuel Leguizamon with the winger's fleet-footed finish equally impressive. It was a move of which the All Blacks would have been proud.
Wales were second best for most of the game and lucky to even earn that unwanted accolade.
A year ago they were lighting up the Rugby World Cup with an engaging blend of power and pace that took them to the brink of the sport's biggest prize but 12 months on they were a shadow of that side. A disappointingly low crowd of just over 50,000 were treated to a one-paced performance lacking vigour and precision and unsurprisingly never threatened to lift the home fans out of their clearly too expensive seats. You could be forgiven for thinking it was the Welsh players and not their Argentine rivals who had endured a near 12-month season such was their torpor.
Injuries to the likes of back-row forwards Dan Lydiate and Ryan Jones as well as prop Adam Jones were always going to rob Wales of some of their bite up front but the result was a toothless display against a Pumas pack determined to dictate proceedings and who largely got their way.
Further injuries to centre Jamie Roberts and lock Alun Wyn Jones did not help their attempts shake off the lethargy that plagued their best efforts but in their absence Wales were reminded that they are painfully light in certain positions that leaves them looking worryingly vulnerable.
But even at 'full strength' they were far too predictable with ball in hand. The Pumas entered this clash fresh from shackling the likes of the free-thinking All Blacks and to a lesser degree Wallabies and Springboks and an all-too-lateral Wales were never going to make a telling incision.
The enforced introduction of James Hook offered a glimmer of hope but wingers Alex Cuthbert and George North were woefully underused and their diminutive Pumas counterparts will quite rightly hog the headlines.
Somehow they still managed to lead at the break but any hopes that a rousing half-time teamtalk from caretaker coach Rob Howley would wake Wales from their slumber were soon dashed. That failure to energise and revitalise his charges will not reflect well on Howley who is in effect auditioning for the role on a permanent basis in the post-Gatland era.
Both coaches and players claimed to have had the best preparation possible including a return trip to Spala in Poland and the fabled cryotherapy chambers but going by their leaden performance perhaps that is not the elixir many believe. Gatland was absent in Dublin, concentrating on surveying his options for the British & Irish Lions, but he will no doubt provide a steadying hand in the coming days.
Wales can at least take heart from the fact that they will not be the last to be put to the sword by this Pumas side who now look poised to leapfrog Ireland in the rankings and cement their place in the second group of seeds ahead of the World Cup draw next month.
Wales' chances of forcing their way into the top four seeding and securing the most preferable draw possible now look remote. A bruised and battered squad must now navigate their way past Samoa next Friday and hope they are in some kind of shape to upset New Zealand or Australia - and unlike the Pumas, they have good reason to fear such a prospect.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
Tom Hamilton talks to World Cup-winning captain John Smit about life after rugby, his fears over the South African exodus and the World Cup
The reopening of the openside debate, a dominant wolf-pack and a sublime performance in defeat - Monday Maul looks at the weekend's talking points
The latest Week in Pictures takes in the Rugby Championship alongside the best photographs from around the domestic game
Amy Perrett, the Australian referee who whistled the Women's Rugby World Cup final after handling only six Tests, talks to Jamie Lyall